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Fortnight Journal: The K-Word

The K-Word
Fortnight Journal
December 12, 2010

Recently, Indian novelist and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy wrote in The New York Times op-ed page of “the subversive strength of warm, boiled eggs.” She was referencing the way her heart was won by the father of a young woman, Nilofar, in the Kashmiri village of Shopian. Nilofar was murdered earlier this year, allegedly by Indian security forces, in a disputed territory conflict with root causes extending as far back as the immediate post-Cold War period–if not as far back as the post-war Partition of India and Pakistan.

Arundhati Roy is among a select number of Indian intellectual critics of India’s ongoing policy and position on Kashmir. She has been the subject of mob retaliation orchestrated by the BJP (Hindu Nationalist Party) against her home, and there are calls for charges of treason against her. This, despite the issue of Kashmir obviously being a critical question at the core of the India-Pakistan dispute, and the ostensible reason for so much Pakistani attention to militant groups that engage India asymmetrically.

To date, Barack Obama has said the K-word only once; while campaigning for the presidency. As President, and manager of the spillover into Pakistan of the war in Afghanistan, Obama has yet to so much as mention Kashmir. This aversion is a bit like trying to bake a cake without an oven; ignoring a flashpoint of over six decades of India-Pakistan conflict will not work when one is convening both sides towards a resolution in congruent tribal areas with amorphous borders reigned over by Islamic-inspired militants. Thus is the critical ingredient to conflict analysis lacking–and the longer this neglected element sits in the sun, the more rotten it becomes.

Like several of my country’s foreign policy predicaments, however gingerly sidestepped, Kashmir is very much of our own making. In the 1980s, the U.S. funneled money, weapons and expertise to the mujahedin in Afghanistan through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. wasted little time in ending its relationship with Pakistan, punishing it for nuclear ambitions with the Pressler Amendment in late 1990 that ended aid and assistance to the country for the next decade until September 11 laid out new geostrategic priorities for the United States.

Cut off and isolated, Pakistan cultivated rival nuclear programs and an international black market in blueprints under AQ Khan. Pakistan smuggled militants and weapons into Kashmir to challenge India repeatedly, most prominently during the Kargil War of 1999, where India and Pakistan were brought to the brink of nuclear war. Pakistan backed down when the U.S. sided with India. Rather than engage the question of Kashmir, then-President Clinton decided preserving the status quo was more important in balancing the two nuclear-armed rivals. “If the U.S. spent a small percent of the attention it pays to the Israel-Palestinian issue to Kashmir…” a familiar refrain by Nawaz Sharif went.

There has since been no challenge to the status quo on the Kashmir issue. Rather, a perpetual downward spiral unfurls as a civil society lives under curfew, threatened by a militant-infiltrated countryside that has pushed people towards the cities. Lawlessness abounds among ranks of both militants and the Indian military, the ostensible occupiers. The result is something worse than a stalemate; a nether-world, a mafia state – a place where criminal elements, drug traffickers, intelligence agents and armies can fight conventional and unconventional wars. The problem has festered even a decade after President Clinton called it “the most dangerous place on earth.”

And yet, Obama’s only effort to engage the issue has been an ill-fated proposition for Holbrooke’s pre-“AfPak” Envoy working title–Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India–until India objected its way out of the discussion, and then became furious about their exclusion.

Obama has another chance to engage the Kashmir issue constructively by inviting discussion in an international platform from Indian intellectuals with legitimacy on the international stage, such as Arundhati Roy, to raise conscientiousness of the issue. There is no reason not to engage a community within a country that can be far more effective in providing internal legitimacy to a presently unpopular position within high-ranking government circles for political and historic reasons. On a topic where there has been so little hope or progress made for well over a decade, any effort must be meticulous, but every effort is necessary to prevent the continuation of the world’s most dangerous game of Russian roulette. It might not end, but even de-escalation would represent a subtle reversal and perhaps provide enough room to give a generation of leaders in India, Pakistan and Kashmir the courage to come forward and see a day past curfew.